Does Hume Underestimate Reason Essay Research Paper

Does Hume Underestimate Reason Essay, Research Paper

Does Hume underestimate the importance of reason in moral thinking?

reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.

Hume’s moral theory arises out of his belief that reason alone can never cause action. Action is caused by desires or feelings and as reason alone can never cause action, morality is rooted in our feelings. It is necessary, therefore, to look at precisely what arguments he presents in favour of his view of reason with regard to moral thinking, whilst also examining the idea that if reason is not the sole arbiter of moral thinking, then what is?

Ethics arouses a great deal of interest in almost all spheres of life; from deciding whether two fourteen-year-old boys are culpable for killing a child, to deciding whether human cloning should be allowed, to deciding whether or not to hand in a wallet that was found on the street. Moreover, it is a universal concept, found in some form or another in every culture, subculture, and even counterculture (some suggest a code in which there is honour among thieves). Furthermore, it is a highly controversial subject, and its theoretical treatment is historic. In some moral systems, for example rationalism, reasoned action is thought to be the epitome of moral behavior, if morality is not to become purely subjective . Hume argues the contrary. However, before Hume s viewpoint, that morality cannot be found solely through reason, can be examined, it might be prudent to look at his ideas about morals

With regard to morality, Hume was most concerned with people s actions, since he believed that their actions causally followed from their sentiments and desires. In this way, reason is incapable of motivating an action. Rather, Hume would say that it is our sentiment that ultimately drives our actions. According to Hume, reason cannot fuel an action and therefore cannot motivate it. In order to prove this against the idea of rationalism, Hume suggests firstly, that those who suggest that morality conforms to reason, and certain unchanging relations between things, are in turn suggesting that morality can be traced back merely to ideas and their relations. Thus, Hume argues that rationalists suggest that reason alone enables us to make moral distinctions. Moreover, Hume then goes on to make a number of arguments suggesting that reason alone is not adequate to make moral judgments. It may be prudent, therefore to briefly summarise these arguments..

Firstly, Hume argues that moral distinctions directly influence our behaviour, since they directly arouse our passions and make us act. Secondly, Hume argues that our passions, desires and actions are not representative of anything else; they are compleat in themselves , and as such, they cannot be either true or false. Further, reason is always and concerned with discovering what is true and what is false, and so cannot cause any actions, which as we have seen, can have no truth value. A further argument is that although some actions may be unreasonable in that they contradict previous actions and may be regarded as immoral, this is not because actions are caused by an immoral faculty of reason but merely by an error of fact; the sentiments decide a goal, and reason decides the means to that goal. In this case, the reason is faulty but not immoral. Similarly, Hume reproaches the rationalists on the grounds that the relation between the theft of an apple and of a car to their respective owners is the same, and as such rationalism does not admit of degrees. Still further, Hume argues that all competing moral theories move from is to ought by deduction, and yet, he argues, it is a entirely different relation. However, there is one more argument, which may require a more detailed examination.

In this argument, Hume makes a number of claims, yet one of the most important is that virtue and vice cannot be found in the subject, but begins as a feeling by an outside observer. In this way, when an act of murder is committed, then all that can be seen objectively, is the murderer s volitions, passions and such. However, it is vicious because of the feelings that it compels inside ourselves and the murderer. Moreover, the same relations occur between a spider which kills its mate as a wife who kills her husband, yet the former is neutral, the latter is wrong. Rationalism, cannot escape this, Hume argues.

On the other hand, this is all to take Hume at his word, and this would not be in the philosophical tradition. Firstly, against Hume s claim that the theft of an apple and the theft of a car are the same relation, I would argue that they do have the same relation to their owners as far as possession is concerned, and yet they do not as far as value is concerned. Each owner may put a value on their possessions such that a person might decide that they will get so much utility from eating an apple and so much from being able to travel wherever that person wants. This idea of utility is a rational procedure, and so we can reason that the theft of a car is more serious because the thief is stealing more utility from the owner. Furthermore, although is and ought are different relations, they are logically related. However, the precise view of morality does alter that relation, for example to take utilitarianism, then if it produces most utility for me to be the Prime Minister, then I ought to be Prime Minister. However, utilitarianism has its own problems with regard to morality, as it may be prudent simply to say that Hume s argument may be defective, and progress to a more important objection. Hume s arguments depend on the ideas that reason deals merely with the attribution of truth-values. However, it could be suggested that reason is more powerful than that, and can give judgement on that which does not have a truth value. For example, it is a reasonable decision on a particular occasion to choose to read a book rather than go to sleep, due to weighing up the pros and cons of such an action. Moreover if a poor man decides to steal a loaf of bread from a fellow poor man, it is because he has decided that the benefits to himself are more important than the moral decision. However, each of these arguments has repercussions for Hume s moral scheme, so it may be prudent to look at this presently

Hume thinks that moral distinctions cannot be based on reason to discover what is right, wrong, good and bad. He says that reason would be able to do this in two ways: By discovering abstract relations between actions and situations (resemblance, contrariety, degrees in quality and proportions in quantity or number) or by discovering a fact about an agent’s character that makes their act virtuous or vicious. In the first case, Hume says that if moral distinctions were based on relations discovered by reason, then non-reasoning and even inanimate objects would be capable of vice and virtue. For instance, it is morally wrong for a son to murder his father. However, “let us chuse any inanimate object, such as an oak or elm; and let us suppose, that by the dropping of its seed, it produces a sapling below it, which springing up by degrees , at last overtops and destroys the parent tree” . The relations involved in the sapling killing the parent tree and the son killing his father are the same. If relations alone were what constituted right and wrong, then the sapling would be guilty of murder, even if you said that it had no choice as the relations would be the same. The second way in which reason could discover right and wrong, by discovering a fact in an agent’s character that makes their act virtuous or vicious, is also not possible according to Hume as facts in the mind of a person are only vicious if the thoughts are implemented. If you just look at an agent, the vice will completely escape you. “You never can find it, till you turn your reflexion into your own breast, and find a sentiment of disapprobation, which arises in you, towards this action.” . The final important argument that Hume levels against those that see reason alone as able to motivate is his ‘is and ought’ argument. On the rationalist system, virtue and vice are discovered by reason alone through facts or relations. Whereas with the hypothetical imperative it is relatively simple to see why someone acts, as they act in order to achieve some goal (i.e.. if you want x then you ought to do y), it does not follow from a fact (’is’ statement) that you ought to pursue a certain course of action. As Hare points out “No imperative conclusion can be validly drawn from a set of premises which does not contain at least one imperative…In this logical rule…is to be found the basis of Hume’s celebrated observation on the impossibility of deducing an ‘ought’-proposition from a series of ‘is’-propositions.” (R.M. Hare ‘The Language of Morals’). This leads us to the question of what, in fact morality is composed,

Hume concludes that if we do not distinguish vice and virtue by reason, then it must be through the sentiments or feelings. As we have seen for willful murder, an examination of the actual act will not produce ideas of vice or virtue in itself. In fact virtue is distinguish d by the pleasure, and vice by the pain , that any action, sentiment or character gives us by the mere view and contemplation. However, if an icy spell causes a water main to burst in my house, this causes me the pain of replacing the water damaged goods, and the discomfort from having a water-logged house, and yet, there is no vice to be found. Hume avoids this problem by saying that there are different kinds of pleasure and pain, and that moral approbation or disapprobation is a very particular feeling. It is thus only those which give us this special feeling that are morally charged. This also allows Hume the luxury of denying pain caused by animals or plants since these do not provoke the special feeling . However, if we see someone blindfold a man, take him into a room and shoot him, then we do feel this disapprobation. However, there are problems with this theory.

Firstly allowing moral approbation to depend on a special feeling assumes that it is possible for us to recognise this feeling. Moreover, for there not to be as many different accounts of morality as there are people, we must also allow that everyone feels the same feelings of approbation, in a given circumstance. This, however, would not appear to case. Although, Hume allows for the fact that some people may be swayed by their closeness to a situation, and that to genuinely feel approbation, they must remove themselves from subjectivity, and allow themselves to be completely impartial, this does not explain huge differences after this has been taken into consideration. For example on balance, most people would agree that prostitution raises feelings of a particular kind (i.e. our special feeling ). Yet these feelings are not as strong as those against a multiple murderer of women. However, Peter Sutcliffe, watching a prostitute killer would feel approbation for the killer, as he believed that prostitution was worse than murder. Therefore, Peter Sutcliffe s particular feeling occurs differently to my particular feeling , and in this sense we must have differing moral sentiments.

In conclusion, Hume does succeed in proving that reason is not solely important with regard to morality. Yet this was not entirely his purpose. Hume intended to show that reason could not motivate actions at all, and in turn, had no grip on morality. In this area, he would seem to have failed. It remains then, that although Hume is correct in his assertion that morality is not concerned solely with reason, he fails in his ultimate aim due to one fact. Hume does indeed underestimate the importance


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